history, the real world today

The 30-hour Prigozhin Protest: insurrection, protest, psy-op or breakdown?

The protest of Yevgeny Prigozhin and a small group of his Wagner fighters is over. It began and ended in 30 hours. Noone died (correction: no more than estimated 20 died; some Russian helicopter pilots were shot down and Wagner deaths may not have been reported). It is unclear if there were any significant material losses. Prigozhin has relinquished his private army and his political adventure, and will go to Belarus in a form of exile, and perhaps, one hopes on a human level, some psychological care after too many months on the front for a civilian. The Russian army will now absorb the Wagner fighters under regular command.

So the Russian government has controlled the protest, and most likely emerged stronger. The rules governing Russia’s conduct of the war have been upgraded from a Special Military Operation to a Counter-Terrorism Operation. International support for Russia will not diminish. Stability is preserved. Ukraine and NATO will go on losing the war.

The biggest losers of this event are many Western commentators, journalists, security state actors, instinctive Russiaphobes or American lackies, and presumably networks of agents within Russia and Belarus, who were smoked out by their excited reaction to Prigozhin’s protest.

There was no civil war. There were no scenes of Russians killing Russians. No tanks entered Moscow. Putin did not flee Moscow. There were no officers declaring loyalty to the West. Russia’s diplomatic reputation was probably not harmed. Russia has resolved a real insurrection with less fuss and less bloodshed than the USA handled the January 6 affair. Erdogan called Putin quickly. Xi, Modi and the Global South will presumably be strengthened in their resistance to American collaboration or celebration of internal unrest. There was no panic in Russian society. There were no signs of substantial protest or sympathy with the rebels and oligarchs in exile, like Khodorovsky. Rather there were scenes of a street cleaner sweeping the pavements of Rostov in front of the parked Wagner military vehicles, and citizens of the city telling the armed soldiers occupying the streets to get out of here.

But there was cultivated panic in the Western media and commentariat. There were too many examples of nonsense judgments, especially from the maliciously misinformed Anglo-American media. Let me document a few of my favourites.

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Historian Peter Frankopan claimed it “won’t be long at this rate” until there are defections of Russian officers on the frontline in Ukraine and/or withdrawal from positions. The old British intelligence fantasy about Russian Civil War was activated.

Velina Tchakarova, geopolitical seer, claimed there was a complex and elaborate conspiracy of rival groups in the Kremlin

At least she had the grace later to acknowledge that a lot of Russia “experts” were exposed by their reaction to events.

Former Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr tweeted, after news of the resolution of the protest, that maybe there’d be a coup in the next year, and maybe now Putin would desperately use nuclear weapons.

Former US Ambassador to Russia in the dreadful nineties, Michael McFaul claimed Russia was already in a civil war,

This theme was repeated on Visegrad news and many other channels. Malcolm Nance and the Ukrainian pretender from Trump’s impeachment, Alexander Vindman, fantasised about a rebellion of the Petrograd Soviet including the execution of Russian officers,

In Australia, the now pathetically misinformed ABC News got its European bureau chief, Steve Cannane, to pen an article that claimed:

Putin has been in power for 23 years and has never looked more vulnerable than in the past 24 hours and it’s all down to two of his own creations – the war in Ukraine and the ascent of Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin.

This article gave more attention to Ukrainian spokespersons than to the words of Putin’s address to the nation on the events. The article’s closing paragraphs, presumably added when the hysteria could no longer be sustained, were:

If Russian troops are brought back from Ukraine to quell rebellions at home, that will open up even more opportunities for Ukraine on a frontline that is about as long as the drive from Sydney to Brisbane. Even though it looks like Putin has survived this mutiny, his credibility and authority have been undermined, and he faces the possibility that any ongoing civil unrest could lead to more humiliating defeats on the battlefield in Ukraine.

ABC News “Global Affairs editor”, John Lyons claimed the Kremlin was panicking. He also drew attention to aspects of Prigozhin’s early statements that seemed to pick up the scripts of the NATO powers on the cause of the war in Ukraine.

The hammer in Prigozhin’s public comments was that Putin was wrongly advised on the need for the war in the first place. [Prigozhin] said that NATO was never a real threat to Russia, and that Putin should not have been advised such…. he clearly is attacking Putin, a man who launched a war that has gone disastrously wrong for Russia on a false pretext.

It seems that the ABC News is happy to amplify aspects of Prigozhin’s rants that have made many Russians suspect his treason was inspired or assisted by Western intelligence agencies. One really wonders where ABC News gets its copy. As Big Serge wrote on Twitter,

I recall listening on Saturday afternoon to the Russians with Attitude livestream, about 10 hours after it was live. During the stream the news broke of the video released by Wagner of the missile attack by the Russian army on a Wagner base. As Kirill and Nikolai worked through the information in live time they showed more intelligent scepticism and ability to scrutinise information critically than the entire staff of ABC News in Australia. They also candidly admitted that they were uncertain about what was really happening, or how it would unfold. They were not fooled. They were not useful idiots.

Thankfully, there are many intelligent, independent commentators on Russian affairs and the events of this war who are more reliable than the Western virtual reality state media machine. Some of my favoured commentators are Tony Kevin, former Australian Ambassador to Russia, the Duran, Big Serge, Simplicius the Thinker and Russians with Attitude. If I had the energy and the belief that our public institutions could repair I would pursue a complaint against the Australian Broadcasting Corporation for its appalling coverage of Russia during these events, and more generally since at least 2016. There ought to be an external review of this coverage. But I don’t have the energy any more, and I believe our public media institutions in the West are irredeemable. If you want intelligent assessments of global news, turn off the ABC News and ignore the mainstream media, except to monitor the latest illusions.

The puzzle remains. What did just happen with Prigozhin’s 30 hour protest?

Truth is stranger than fiction. That is what I love about history. One of the lessons of history is that eccentric events never quite fit the pattern of inherited narratives. This is clearly the case here. Specific details matter. Prigozhin is a unique character, and Wagner is an unusual organisation. This organization also faced an “existential threat” with a deadline, following the decision by the Russian Government to change contracts with very particular change the contract terms of all the private military corporations, and to incorporate them into the regular command of the army. Prighozin would be deprived of his platform to act like Clive Palmer with a private army (if I may be excused to use an comparison that my Australian readers will understand). Prighozhin, moreover, has acted oddly for months, especially since the siege of Bakhmut, and his actions have led some to question whether he is suffering trauma and battle fatigue. He is, after all, not a professional soldier. He is an entrepreneur who has borrowed the glory of his Wagner crew.

So any explanation of events will take time to be based on a solid understanding of the real sequence of events, the interplay of the characters, the mixed motives, the conflicts and the stakes involved. Briefly, however, there are seven plausible narratives of the events, on my reading of events.

  1. It was a coup attempt, as widely hoped in the Western agencies. Comparisons were made with the coup against Gorbachev in 1991. But Gorbachev and his wife were held captive in Crimea for hours or days in 1991. If this was a coup, it more resembles the Munich beer hall putsch. There is no evidence of a coup such as serious elite support or coordinated action by officials or official defections or conspiracies. However, its comic failure does not rule out the possibility of this intent, if only in Progozhin’s possibly unsteady mind.
  2. It was an insurrection. It was an armed protest in the hope of winning support, perhaps on the basis of believing too much in Wagner’s heroic status with the Russian people. An insurrection can be a less organised atttempt to overthrow the government, and can arise from a mix of motives, such as Wagner had with Prigozhin’s political ambitions and loss of quasi-autonomous status for its commanders. But insurrections aspire, if recklessly, to replace the government. This protest appears aimed primarily to punish two leading politicians (Shoigu and Gerasimov) who Prigozhin had an obsessive dispute with. He declared no intention to overthrow the Government, and specifically never challenged Putin.
  3. It was a mutiny, or as Vladislav Zubok has written a “mutinous voyevoda playing Ceasar”. A mutiny is an open rebellion against the proper authorities by soldiers or sailors. There have been a few in Russian history. This rebellion, however, was led by a non-soldier, and appears to have only attracted a very small number of forces. We may need to learn more about the motives and enthusiasm of the small band of Wagner fighters who did follow Prigozhin to decide if they were rebelling, or if they were helping their wealthy boss stage his protest. The mutiny appears to have had no significant effect on actual military operations. If anything, the missiles and Russian offensives pressed harder.
  4. It was a protest gone wild, or, if you like, a military trucker convoy. Prigozhin declared his protest as a March for Justice, and drove a small convoy of trucks from Rostov towards Voronezh, and still a long way from Moscow. There were many more trucks in the convoy protests in Canada and the USA in early 2020. This protest had nothing like the disruptive impact on Moscow citizens and governments that the Canadian trucker protest had on Ottawa. Moreover, the Russian Government appears to have negotiated more successfully than the did Mr Trudeau with his convoy. It attracted fewer protestors than the protests against COVID mandates in Western cities in 2021. However, it does have a look of essentially an industrial dispute gone wild. When Wagner released the video of the alleged missile strike on their base, they released a video of a soldier who complained about the contract terms being offered by the Ministry of Defence, and his desire to fight for his homeland on better contract terms.
  5. It was a Russian psy-op (psychological operation). Some people speculate that the sequence of events was orchestrated by the Russian government as an elaborate psy-op to do one of two things. Plot one is to sucker Ukraine into reckless offensives on the assumption of Russian weakness. Plot two is to expose Western intelligence networks in Russia and organise a counter-terrorism crackdown. Plot one seems entirely unneccesary after the disastrous weeks of the Ukrainian offensive. Plot two might be true, in effect. Russia has implemented counter-terrorism operations; but, of course, they would with military vehicles moving towards the capital and every Western journalist shrieking about another Russian civil war. However, many commentators, including Velina Tcharakorva, seemed to imply that somehow Putin approved Prigozhin’s actions or that it would allow him to remove people he was fed up with. This is a fantasy about Putin as a Bond villain, not the reality of the prudent political leader that he is. It also ignores the depth of his feeling in referring to the events of 1917 in his televised address, and his remarks to a journalist that you cannot forgive betrayal. Highly implausible, but this is essentially a conspiracy theory that will only be tested from the archives in 40 years time.
  6. It was Western intelligence intervention or psychological operation. Some speculate that Ukraine or NATO or the CIA turned Prigozhin at some point, and used his grievances towards their end. Regime change and political instability in Russia has been the more or less openly stated aim of the West for this whole war, and perhaps for the last few decades. Prigozhin’s remarks about Russia entering the war on a false premise have raised suspicions. Western gloating over these statements and the vulnerability of Putin have fuelled these suspicions. The extraordinary information campaign over the last 36 hours may also support this argument. Even verteran Indian diplomat M.K. Bhadrakumar raised concerns that Twitter was manipulating his feed for the purposes of information war. Of course, there is no clear evidence of this, however suggestive the signs. One cannot rule it out, but I suspect it was more partial and improvised intelligence operation.
  7. Thus, my final and favoured narrative is that this protest was a manipulated breakdown, that had aspects of 3) mutiny, 4) protest gone wild, and 6) Western intelligence operation. The dispute between Prigozhin and the Russian Ministry of Defence has been brewing for months. About a month ago, it was administratively resolved with the decisions on integration of private armies into Russian command. This spelled the end of Prigozhin’s power base in the media to project himself and his capacity to perform as a non-soldier, yet be a national hero. His already unsteady mind, after months on the front, got desperate. Western intelligence agencies spotted an opportunity, and worked on Prighozin himself or members of the Wagner group close to Prighozin. They cultivated, if not open treason, then at least pushing protest to its outer limit. Events ran out of control. Prigozhin effectively had a breakdown, led a wildcat strike, and Western intelligence agencies amplified events as best they could to get the “regime change” they had always dreamed of. As usual, they over-egged the pudding.

Of course I may well be wrong.

In any case, the events of these days are not a tipping point, not an historic day. They are another case of the eccentricity and unpredictability of real human history. Historians will debate them for decades if and when more documentation becomes available.

The sun will rise over Moscow tomorrow, and the Ruin of Ukraine will continue.

Let me know what you think.

1 thought on “The 30-hour Prigozhin Protest: insurrection, protest, psy-op or breakdown?”

  1. I agree with what you say about the ABC, it’s a travesty.
    I’m listening to France 24 as I write, and what is interesting is how little coverage there is of this incident. I haven’t heard any expert analysis … it may yet come, but I get the impression so far that French news coverage is either holding its fire or has already decided that nothing much has changed and to press on with coverage of other world events.
    Which may have something to do with Macron meeting up with leaders of the Global South in the last day or two…

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